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FIRST-PERSON: NIV will require ‘attentive study’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The announcement of a new project involving the New International Version of the Bible is certain to attract a good deal of interest in the media and throughout the evangelical world, for few issues approach the importance of translating the Bible faithfully and accurately.

The announcement of an NIV update will attract special attention because of the controversy that surrounded the publication and release of what became known as the TNIV, or Today’s New International Version, announced in 2002. As is now well-known, the release of the TNIV led to a firestorm of controversy among evangelicals. Even as supporters of the TNIV declared the translation to be superior to previous contemporary English translations in terms of “gender accuracy,” others saw the new translation as hopelessly accommodated to contemporary concerns about gender.

The controversy over the TNIV was heated and uncomfortable, but inevitable. Those of us who saw the translation as deficient and misguided in its claim to and application of “gender accuracy” responded to the new translation with alarm and deep concern. The issues of primary concern with the release of the TNIV remain. These issues include, but are not limited to, matters of gender reference.

As many of us made clear at the time of the TNIV’s announcement and release, the issues with this translation had to do with translation decisions that we were convinced did not produce “gender accuracy,” but lamentable inaccuracy. The rigorous application of these decisions produced a translation that was not only problematic in terms of direct and indirect gender references, but also in its confusion of crucial texts with messianic significance.

The announcement by Biblica (formerly known as the International Bible Society), the Committee on Bible Translation and Zondervan comes as the world of English Bible translations has been transformed, even in the brief years since 2002. The joint release indicates that this new translation will be known as the NIV, even though it will be based on the TNIV as it has been edited even since publication. This is a significant departure from the earlier promise to “freeze” the NIV translation in order to protect it from controversy. This decision had been a defensive move taken by the publisher and its partners as controversy threatened to cause significant harm to the reputation of the NIV. As far back as 1997 an effort to revise the NIV was met with intense concern related to the use of “inclusive language.”

The issues of concern related to the TNIV remain. For the sake of the Gospel, we must hope and pray that we do not confront these same issues in the updated NIV. At the same time, we must avoid reckless talk. Even where we must disagree, we must recognize that everyone involved in this discussion will face the judgment of God for how this disagreement is conducted.

The Sept. 1 announcement indicates that the NIV will now be “unfrozen.” But now the NIV partners have acted openly and honestly to announce their intention. One of the most lamentable aspects of the earlier controversy over the TNIV had to do with what were clearly understood to be broken promises related to the NIV.

The “unfreezing” of the NIV is inevitable. Evangelicals must be committed to the translation of the Bible into the vernacular language of contemporary people. No translation, no matter how worthy, can remain static and unchanged without the consequence of becoming dated and increasingly out of touch with the development of language. The “unfreezing” of the NIV has now been announced in a way that is respectful and honest.

Maureen (Moe) Gerkins, president of Zondervan, along with representatives of Biblica and the Committee on Bible Translation, have approached this new project and update with the stated determination to revisit controversial translation issues related to the TNIV and to consider all the concerns raised in that process. She has demonstrated integrity in discussing these issues openly and honestly. She, along with Zondervan’s partners, has promised an openness to these concerns. They have not promised to change their translation philosophy. Their straightforwardness on this is commendable, even where we may find ourselves in disagreement over these decisions and the underlying translation philosophy.

The controversy over the TNIV divided the evangelical community. Regrettably, in many cases the controversy produced more heat than light. Nevertheless, this was not always the case. This controversy brought strategic attention to crucial questions related not only to the NIV family of translations but to the entire project of translating the Bible into the English language. Furthermore, the controversy was directed to very real disagreements about the meaning of gender and language. These are issues of great theological, biblical, pastoral and moral importance.

Behind the most recent controversies there remains the larger question of translation philosophy, often conceptualized in the distinction between more formal translations and translations that are more dynamic. Even as I recognize a spectrum between formal and dynamic approaches, my strong preference, based in theological and biblical considerations, is for a translation that is committed to formal equivalence as the primary goal.

In the end, the update of the NIV to be released in 2011 will have to stand on its own. Those of us who have had significant concerns with the TNIV should communicate these concerns respectfully, candidly and directly to the Committee on Bible Translation, to Zondervan and to Biblica. When released, the updated NIV will deserve and require the attentive study and review of all committed evangelicals. We must hope and pray that this updated NIV will be found both faithful and useful.

For now, the decisions that will determine the faithfulness and usefulness of this updated edition are in the hands of the Committee on Bible Translation. We must all pray that their work will produce an updated translation we can greet with appreciation and trust. We must take the members of the Committee on Bible Translation at their word that they will consider these concerns. To fail to pray and to act in this way will be to fail at a basic Christian commitment. The issue is not only the integrity of a Bible translation, but our integrity as Christians.

And so we hope. And so we pray. And so we wait.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This column first appeared at AlbertMohler.com.

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  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.